The following is a discourse given by myself to an LDS (Christian) congregation during my stay in Jerusalem. It includes references to both the Bible and LDS scripture. For more information on LDS beliefs, please click here.
In True to the Faith, under the subject of “forgiveness”, two subcategories are listed: forgiveness which we seek from God, and forgiveness that we must give to others. I was disappointed to not see the category which I have found is crucial to these other two: forgiveness of ourselves.
As I have passed through the repentance process in my life, forgiving myself is often the hardest step. One of my professors at BYU had us grade tests in class, but would make us exchange with our neighbors. He explained that this policy was not for fear of cheating, but because he said “You grade yourselves far more harshly than you grade your fellow students.” I’ve found this is incredibly true of myself.
(At this point in my discourse I told”donuts for pushups” story. If you have never heard it before, click here.)
To me, the saddest part in this story to me is when the teacher asks, “Will you do 10 pushups so so-and-so can have a donut that he/she doesn’t want?” I realized that when I refused to forgive myself, I was doing this. I was saying, “I believe that Christ went through infinite suffering for me personally, and that the price for my sin has already been paid, but I reject this payment on my behalf.” When I repented, and then refused to forgive myself, I was refusing the gift of Christ’s atonement.
I knew that I would never intentionally desire to belittle the atonement of Christ in that way, so why did I do it? What makes so many of us harder on ourselves than on others? I came to find that there are three reasons why I could not forgive myself: pride, a misunderstanding of repentance, and an inaccurate view of my relationship with Heavenly Father.
First, pride was frequently at the center of why I could not forgive myself. I have always been what my Mom describes as a “self-starter.” I’m self-motivated, and when I see something that I want to accomplish I’m usually able to just get up and do it! So when it came time for me to repent, I would think things like, “I’m a strong and able person. I should be able to resist this temptation on my own.” Or, “Christ already has to take so much of my burden, I’ll handle this one myself.”
I finally came to realize that attempting to “take care of it on your own” is, I believe, as useless as Moses trying to split the Red Sea on his own. He may have thought the same things – “God already did all the 10 plagues. I’ll do this one by myself.” But no matter how big Moses’ bucket, he could never have made dry ground appear.
It was at this point that I realized had a limited understanding of all the implications of an “infinite atonement”. Atonement comes from the Hebrew word “Kafar”, meaning a covering. So, it is an infinite covering of our sins, our shortcomings, and our weaknesses. No sin you can commit, no weakness you can suffer, no shortcoming you can blame yourself for, is ever bigger than infinity. Infinity applies to severity of the sin, frequency of the sin, and length of time. The only ones outside the range of an “infinite covering” are the ones who intentionally, with full understanding of their choice, reject it.
Understanding the “infinite” nature of Christ’s atonement also made one thing very clear: taking my burdens on my own shoulders wasn’t doing anyone any favors. Infinity minus 1 is still infinity. So Christ’s suffering minus the stuff I thought I could deal with on my own was still infinity- I wasn’t doing anything but hurting myself.
Once I got rid of the apparently-noble, but ultimately-destructive lie that “I can take care of it myself,” I was one step closer to letting Christ take my burden from me, accept his forgiveness, and be able to forgive myself.
The next step I had to take in order to forgive myself was to correct my misunderstanding of repentance. I often felt, especially when a sin was fresh or when I couldn’t seem to escape from one recurring sin, that I needed to be properly punished for my actions, or that I needed real suffering before I could forgive myself. But suffering and punishment are not what repentance or forgiveness are about.
Elder Theodore M. Burton, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS Church, had the assignment of reviewing applications of reinstatement for those who had formerly been excommunicated from the church. Of that assignment he recalled:
“Many times a bishop will write: “I feel he has suffered enough!” But suffering is not repentance. Suffering comes from a lack of complete repentance.
A stake president will write: “I feel he has been punished enough!” But punishment is not repentance. Punishment follows disobedience and precedes repentance.
A husband will write: “My wife has confessed everything!” But confession is not repentance. Confession is an admission of guilt that occurs as repentance begins.
A wife will write: “My husband is filled with remorse!” But remorse is not repentance. Remorse and sorrow continue because a person has not yet fully repented.”
I had to understand that it is not my place to put a qualifier on how and when God will forgive someone, especially not myself. Often the scripture in Doctrine and Covenants 64 is used as we seek to remind ourselves that we need to forgive others: “of you it is required to forgive all men.” And, unfortunately, I feel that too often the preceding sentence is used as a qualifier for God not forgiving someone, when he says, “I the Lord will forgive whom I will forgive.” But as I looked at the positive side of this statement, it was actually incredibly hopeful: HE will decide if he forgives me, and it is not up to me to tell Him how and when I think I’ve been forgiven.
Christ himself said, “I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent.” (D&C 19:16-17) Clearly, Christ does not require our suffering in order to forgive us, so we need to stop requiring it of ourselves.
Finally, one of the most serious reasons that I could not forgive myself for so long came from a failed understanding of my relationship with God. To more fully understand our relationship with Heavenly Father and Christ, and their view of us, took a very long time for me to change. But as I closely examined some well known scripture stories, I gained a better outlook of their love for me, and all mankind.
First, the story of Christ and the woman caught in adultery is well-known. (John 8:3-11) Christ commands those who presented the adultress, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” We know from the story that the men left in shame, and when the woman looked up she confirmed that no man condemned her. Christ replied, “Neither do I condemn thee.” What I have always found interesting about this story is that there was one man present who qualified to “first cast a stone at her”. There indeed was one man who was without sin, who had every right to condemn the adulteress. Christ could have punished her and have been fully justified by the law in doing so. But he immediately forgave her, and only asked that she “go, and sin no more.” In a similar manner, Christ does not want to punish me for my sins. Like the adulteress, he wishes to instantly forgive me, and only wants me to continue my life and try to do better.
Another such story that depicts Christ’s relationship with us is the story of his healing of the ten lepers. (Luke 17:11-19) He told them to go to the priests, and along the way, they were healed. They must have been a good way off, because only one of the ten decided to make the return journey to thank Christ for the miracle he had received. Often this parable is used to remind us to thank God, and we condemn the nine ungrateful lepers, but I’d like to point out something else in this story. Christ, who knew the thoughts and intentions of men’s hearts, must have known fully well beforehand that nine of those men would not return to thank him for their healing. The very least they could do would be to go back and say “Thanks”, and they didn’t even do the least. But Christ did not withhold their healing because of their ingratitude. He knew they wouldn’t return to give thanks, and healed them anyway. Christ didn’t care. He didn’t expect anything in return. The men didn’t need to earn or deserve their healing – he did it just because he loved them. For far too long, I felt like I had to earn Christ’s love or that I had to deserve his healing power, but that just isn’t true. He loves me, and you, regardless of anything we think we can do to deserve that love.
Brothers and Sisters, please do not refuse to forgive yourself because of a flawed view of Christ’s love for you, and your relationship with him.
If you ever think that you aren’t worth the pain and complete agony that our Savior suffered, I would like to kindly remind you that, quite frankly, your opinion doesn’t matter. It took me a long time to accept this. Christ knew that I was worth it long before I could do anything to “deserve” his sacrifice. He loved me before I was born, not because I earned that love, or because I proved myself worthy of it, but just because I am me.
Christ has had an eternity in the pre-earth life to get to know me. I’ve only had a few decades to get to know myself. Even though I don’t understand how or why Christ could love me so much, I don’t need to worry about it. He knows. He didn’t make a mistake. The atonement was for me, as it was for all of you. There was no caveat or fine-print on the atonement to leave anyone out. I have to trust that He knows me better than I know myself, and even with his infinite knowledge of all my future weaknesses and sins and rebellions, I was still worth it. And each one of you is as well.
One interesting aspect of the word “infinite” is that it works both ways. Christ loves us infinitely. And the atonement was infinite. By the associative property, I came to understand that if all of Christ suffering, from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Cross on Calvary, all of the agony and pain of the entire human race from the beginning to the end of time, had to be borne upon his shoulders, and that I, myself, was the only person who would be saved through that process, He still would have done it. And the same is true for you. He loves you infinitely. We are not just one in a crowd of billions whom he saved. He knows you, and he knows me, personally and individually, and He did it all for you, individually.
I have heard it said, and I believe it to be true, that the saddest person in heaven on the day of final judgment will be Christ. Like the boy doing pushups for the girl who refused to take one, he will be heartbroken and begging people to accept his sacrifice and allow themselves to be forgiven through his grace.
Christ has said, “Mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive.” (3 Nephi 9:13-14). He will not refuse anyone who seeks forgiveness, so please do not refuse yourself forgiveness.
I’d like to end with one of my favorite quotes from author Brad Wilcox:
“Our lives are filled with ‘if only’s. ‘If only I had done this’ or ‘If only I hadn’t done that’. There is one ‘if only’ that we will never have to say: ‘If only I had a savior. If only I could change’. We DO and we CAN.”
I bear testimony that forgiveness is real, and we can achieve it every day for our entire lives. We do not need to try and sort out our problems for ourselves. We do not need to wait for the proper amount of punishment or suffering before we are forgiven. All we need to do is understand Christ’s infinite love for us, have faith in His miraculous atonement, and turn to him. As we do so, there is nothing He can’t and (perhaps most importantly) nothing He won’t do for us.